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VIDEO: Hip-Hop Poet Laura "Piece" Kelley

Laura "Piece" Kelleyis a Seattle hip-hop artist, poet and educator who encourages young people to create music that expresses their lived experiences. A self-described single mom, high school dropout with no college education, she's worked with household names such as Drake, T.I., and KRS-One, and she once read a poem for the Dalai Lama himself.

Much of her work explores her experience growing up in the Central District in the 1980s, when she had to duck gunshots on the streets, slept on the floor and didn't always have enough to eat. "It seemed as though the options growing up as an inner-city young person were either resort to some sort of gang violence, religious practice, an art form, or a sport," says Piece.

Piece says she's been moved by music since as early as she can remember. Her two older brothers were rappers and her grandmother was a jazz pianist. When she was growing up, Piece would participate in freestyle rap sessions, cypher building, on the streets. She says the passion and urgency to create music grew when she hit adolescence.

I realized that the music and the rap and the poetry gained me acceptance. It gave me a space to share my personal experiences with my peers and feel like they heard me and weren’t judging me. And it was a safe place. I’ve always said hip-hop built a safe place on the streets for kids who were 'hard' as far as their understanding of the bitter reality of growing up what I feel is an inappropriate term but what other people may guise as 'at-risk.'

Piece says that back in the day, kids would go out to places like Pike Place Market and freestyle rap to a boombox. She says it forced them to hone their craft and become as creative as possible in order to stand out.

Now that aspiring artists share their work on sites like Myspace, Youtube, Facebook, Bandcamp and DatPiff, she says fewer people hone their craft on the streets. She laments it as "losing sight of that foot to the pavement."

Piece says hip-hop is a youth-born, youth-sustained culture that influences the global entertainment industry. Because youth are also influenced by it, a cycle is created where the same kind of music often gets made and re-made.

That's why Piece works with youth all over the Seattle area in community centers and schools. Piece says that when she was growing up, poetry and hip-hop were her "lens and vessel" to translate her experiences, and she found that there were other people who were hungry for that same craft. She helps guide students in their music-making and encourages them to use music and poems as an outlet for their lives and to develop their own style, like she did.

This fall, KUOW hosted an after-school workshop for high school students at the South Park Community Center. It was part of our youth radio program, RadioActive. Six youth producers spent eight weeks learning what it means to be a radio journalist. They created powerful stories about subjects close to their hearts. This story is by RadioActive Youth Producer Kadian Vanloo. Listen to RadioActive stories hereand stay up-to-date with RadioActive on Facebook.